Okla. Strikes Down Law That Would Have 'Undressed' Women

Lawsuit challenged law that would have posted women's personal info on Web site.

Feb. 19, 2010— -- The Oklahoma County District Court today ruled that a law passed by the legislature in 2009 that imposed restrictions on abortion is unconstitutional, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights, which had challenged the law.

The court ruled that bill 1595 addressed too many topics, and therefore violated the Oklahoma constitution's "single-subject" rule.

One of the most contentious parts of the law was the creation of a Web site whereby any woman who had had an abortion would have been required to provide personal details pertaining to her choice, including her relationships, financial situation and motivation for seeking an abortion.

The center filed a challenge against the law in September on behalf of former state representative Wanda Stapleton and Shawnee, Okla., resident Lora Joyce Davis.

"A friend said it best: It's like undressing women in public, exposing their most personal issues on the Internet," said Lora Joyce Davis, one of the co-plaintiffs.

In addition to mandating the new Web site for abortion-related demographics, the legislation also redefined various abortion terms, banned sex-selective abortion and created other new reporting requirements.

The law went into effect in November 2009 and the Web site would have launched in March.

"We are very pleased with today's ruling," said Jennifer Mondino, staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights. "The government has no business running a grand inquisition into the private lives of Oklahoma women and wasting a quarter of a million dollars of taxpayers' money in the process."

Called the Statistical Reporting of Abortions Act, the law would have required all doctors to file information on a woman's age, marital status, education level, number of previous pregnancies, cost and type of abortion, as well as the mother's relationship to the father, with the Oklahoma Department of Health.

Though it did not ask for names, the form posed 37 questions detailing a woman's personal situation. Critics said the first eight questions alone could easily lead to the identification of a woman who lived in one of the state's many small communities.

Doctors who failed to provide information would face criminal sanctions and loss of their medical licenses.

Last year, the organization used the same argument to successfully strike down a 2008 law that would have required women seeking abortions to have an ultrasound within an hour of the proceedings and require doctors to describe the picture to their patients in great detail -- down to the number of fingers and toes.

Abortion Law 'Protects Sanctity of Life'

The new law was sponsored by two anti-abortion rights Republicans, Sen. Todd Lamb, of Edmond, and Rep. Dan Sullivan, of Tulsa.

"This legislation is essential in protecting the sanctity of life," said Lamb when the bill was enacted last April. "Too often the life of the unborn is taken for granted, and I applaud my colleagues for their bipartisan support of a pro-life measure, despite attempts on the floor to sabotage this issue important to families across our state."

But Davis, and co-plaintiff Wanda Jo Stapleton, a former Democratic state representative from Oklahoma City, argued that the law was not only ineffective but was also "an unlawful expenditure of public funds."

The Web site, they say, would have cost taxpayers $281,285 the first year and $256,285 every subsequent year.

Davis said money spent on women in "personal crisis" could be better spent addressing Oklahoma's high teen pregnancy rate -- which is the sixth highest in the nation, according to a 2009 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Oklahoma allows abortions to be performed up to 22 weeks. Only three doctors in the state are known to perform abortions.

In 2007, more than 6,300 abortions were performed in Oklahoma, down slightly from the previous year and reflecting a nationwide trend according to Planned Parenthood, an organization that supports abortion rights.

"Our reproductive rights are challenged yearly in the Oklahoma legislature, and our state seems to have become a testing ground for oppressive restrictions on abortion access," said Keri Parks, director of external affairs for Planned Parenthood of Central Oklahoma

The number of abortion restrictions is increasing nationwide, according to Planned Parenthood. During the 2009 state legislative session, 23 bills were introduced in Texas and 18 were introduced in Mississippi.

But supporters said the law was not about restricting access to abortion but helping the state gather important information.

"I don't think [the bill] has anything to do with restrictions or roadblocks," said David Dunn, director of research for the Oklahoma Family Policy Council, which opposes abortion.

"The government knows what the situation is and isn't operating in the dark," said Dunn, who dismissed complaints that the new Web site might reveal confidential information.

"We might have a situation in some small town, but I don't know why it's a big deal if abortion is legal and there is nothing wrong, why would people be ashamed to have an abortion?" he asked.

Recording statistical data on abortions is nothing new. Currently 46 out of 50 states and the District of Columbia have mandatory or voluntary reporting, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which promotes sexual and reproductive health worldwide.

Since 1969, when abortion was legal in only a handful of states, the CDC had gathered and released aggregate data provided by state health departments to track maternal morbidity and mortality.

"Generally, the requirements have been benign," said Elizabeth Nash, a Guttmacher public policy associate. "The forms go to the health department and they put them under lock and key and send the data to the CDC."

But over time, as the abortion debate has heated up, states have added "twists and turns" to those requirements, asking for details on minors and fathers of the fetus, according to Nash.

"They are becoming more and more intrusive," she told ABCNews.com.

As for women seeking abortion, a 2009 Guttmacher report says that the abortion rate is roughly equal in countries where it is legal and those where it is highly restricted.

"Honestly," said Nash. "It seems to be that women surmount all sorts of barriers to abortion waiting periods. They travel long distances to get child care because they know what they need to do. Women still get abortions and I think this is just adding to their burden."